When In Doubt, Go Higher

Looking out from the Lost Canyon Trail, Zion. Photo: Justin Roth / The Stone Mind

“When in doubt, go higher.” It’s the tagline for a classic outdoor publication called the Mountain Gazette. I worked at the paper briefly, once upon a time.

“…Go higher.” It’s a fun little phrase, though, if not one apt to get you into trouble. (“When in doubt, go down” might have better served many an unfortunate climber or backcountry skier, alas.) Still there’s something to it. It resonates with a certain type of person.

When I was young, I unintentionally lived by this dictum. I went too high up the giant conical pine trees in our front yard and came down covered in insoluble sap. No more than six years old, I chossaneered up short, exfoliating shale cliffs in the ravine by my house in what felt like Honoldian feats of soloing.

“When in doubt, go higher” was knocking around my head this weekend as my wife and I plodded up Zion National Park’s steep Hidden Canyon Trail. What makes going up so damned appealing, I wondered?

I’ve been reading a book called The Story of the Human Body: Evolution, Health, and Disease, by Daniel Lieberman, which offers evolutionary explanations for many of our traits, from skeletal structure to mental issues and food tastes. The book, in theory points towards a possible answer to the above question.

Maybe many of us feel an unconscious pull towards higher ground for the same reason that bodies of water are almost universally attractive: at some point, they might well have been instrumental to our survival.

According to The Story of the Human Body, our evolutionary ancestors of 5-8 million years ago—our last common ancestor (LCA) with chimps, its believed—lived most of their lives at height. The LCA, a primate, sought out high perches for sleeping as a means of protection from predators. Most modern monkeys and apes sleep in trees, and chimps even build comfy nests there. Gelada baboons spends their nights like big-wallers, dozing on cliff faces.

Human ancestors not only sought shelter high above the earth, but they found sustenance there, too. Sub-Saharan Africa, where the LCA lived, was a warm and wet place around 10 million years ago. Rainforests there would have been abundant sources of nutrient-rich fruits.

But between 10 and five million years ago, a cooling climate caused the rain forests to recede. In their place grew up woodland habitats where ripe fruits became, as Lieberman puts it, “less abundant, more dispersed, and more seasonal.” To cope, the LCA started walking more and more on two legs, venturing out in search of additional sustenance.

Obviously, we humans still walk on two legs and no longer live in trees. But like many old, seemingly outdated biological traits picked up along the evolutionary way, a love of getting up off the ground has stuck with us. One might call it a vestige of a former life.

So then maybe “When in doubt, go higher” is a phrase born subconsciously from an ancient pull towards a vantage point that offered some comfort in a wild and dangerous world. Go higher for a view of any large carnivores lurking on the horizon. Go higher for those pulpy fruits that fuel a hungry metabolism…

Go higher for a sense of peace and freedom that many of us to this day seek on the cliffs and mountains, despite the enormous changes that have made the modern world all but indistinguishable from the one our ancestors navigated millions of years ago.

10 Gift Ideas for the Prehistoric Outdoorsperson

Ötzi's up for anything!
Ötzi’s up for anything! Photo: © South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/A. Ochsenreiter

The outdoorsy lifestyle existed before synthetic base layers, REI, or even Fred Beckey. In fact, prehistoric humans spent pretty much all their time in nature, if you can believe that. Case in point: Ötzi, a 45-year-old dude whose preserved body was found in a jerky-like state high in the Alps more than five-thousand years after his death. The bearded, five-foot-two inch tall nature-boy made a habit of running up and down the mountains in what is today the border between Italy and Austria.

No ultimate roadtrip-mobile, Whole Foods, or Mountain Athlete Training for Ötzi. But just like the climbers, hunters, and thru-hikers of today, outdoorspeople of old loved their gear. Ötzi was found surrounded by all kinds of sweet kit for his time in the outdoors: a knife and an axe, a backpack, all-terrain footwear, even a bearskin cap. And since everyone else on the Internet has already compiled holiday buyer’s guides for the contemporary outdoor lifestyle, I thought I’d put one together for Ötzi and his kin.

1. Animal sinew – Shredded tendon fiber is super tough and, bonus, shrinks as it dries. It’s just the thing for binding a flint blade into an ash wood dagger handle. When paired with a bone awl, it’s the ideal way to mend broken seams in a pair of well-worn goat hide leggings.

2. Flint from the Lessini Mountains – For crafting into fresh knife blades or arrowheads, or for getting that fire going on a cold night under the stars, Lessini flint is the finest anywhere.

3. Grass and hay – Long strands of supple grass are good for binding stuff together—the wooden supports of a backpack frame or the ankle of your deerskin boots, for example. Meanwhile, grasses cut and dried into hay make an excellent insulating layer in boots. It’s a good idea to keep several handfuls of dry hay on hand at all times, to re-stuff your boots after a stream crossing or long hike through the high-mountain snows.

4. Copper polish – Sure, that copper axe can fell a yew tree in thirty minutes flat, but it’s also a status symbol worth keeping nice and shiny. For a good polish formula, trade with some low-landers for a grass pouch of citrus fruit, as the acidic juice makes quick work of oxidization. Bonus gift: a tab of beeswax. Applied after cleaning, it helps maintain the polish longer.

5. Animal fat – Like Michael Jackson in the 1980s, practically every piece of Ötzi’s wardrobe was made of animal hide, from hat to his loin cloth, from leggings to shoes. To keep everything supple, animal fat can be used to condition leather and hide.

6. Field horsetail – Any seasoned outdoorsperson wants gear that’s lightweight, easy to use, and versatile. Enter field horsetail: it’s abrasive enough to smooth and polish a yew tree bow, yet it can also be boiled in water to help ward off an assortment of maladies.

7. Shoots of viburnum sapwood – Two words: arrow shafts. Boom!

8. Dolomite marble disk – Any copper-age dude hiking around in the mountains with a bow and arrow is going to need a way to carry all the wildfowl he pots. A tassel of leather nooses is perfect for this purpose, but how to affix them to your person? A fine Dolomite marble disk, carved be the small-fingered youth of the region, is a great accessory. Simply thread a leather strap through the central hole of the disk and secure with a stopper knot. Then pass the disk beneath your leather utility belt and you’re all set. Attractive shape and color add an element of class to any ensemble.

9. Bracket fungi – You can never have too much of this Neolithic panacea. The fruiting body of the birch polypore fungus has long been known for its antibiotic and styptic effects, and the toxic oils it contains can ward off pesky intestinal parasites.

10. iPhone – If you were to give our friend Ötzi a bath and a shave, he’d fit right into twenty-first century society, and nothing says 2013 like an iPhone. GPS for way finding, high-res camera for capturing alpine sunsets, iMessaging to check in with the missus or village elders, and the Google app, to make sure those berries weren’t poisonous.

 

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